Can the Center Hold? Toward a New Foreign Policy

Why is Russia really in Syria? Can the Kremlin continue to support both Israel and Iran at the same time? What will happen to the politics of Europe if there is another wave of Syrian refugees from Idlib Province? The answers to these questions are remarkably simple.

First, Russia is in Syria to alter the political dynamics of the European trans-Atlantic establishment by driving millions of Sunni Arab refugees northward. Second, by achieving an Assad victory in Syria, Moscow will not be able to disentangle Iran and its proxies from their grip on power in Damascus. Finally, a million more Syrian refuges in Europe will mean the rise of the far-Right (or Left) across the continent and the eventual end of NATO and the EU.

Does Trump have a policy on the future of Europe? Certainly Obama and the Democrats never understood the cynical game being played by Putin. If the Obama team had clearly understood the political consequences for Europe of the Arab refugee crisis, they surely would have pursued an alternative policy between March 2011 and January 2017. To this day the Democratic Party’s Middle East policy is either pro-Iranian or isolationist. Either way Iran benefits, Assad holds power, and Europe loses. But what about the Republicans? Is their policy on Russia and Syria also isolationist? Will they take a principled stand against an Assad-Russia-Iran-Hezbollah offensive into Idlib? Does Trump understand the consequences of non-action? But also, what about the possible dire consequences of a US-Russia superpower showdown?

In Europe, the parties of the far-Left and the far-Right are very close to achieving an electoral revolution against both globalization and the Americanization of Europe’s defense. Rapprochement and possibly even an entente with Moscow have become the political glue that hold both Right and Left extremes into a similar policy formulation. The refugee issue has become the central tenet of a deep-seated popular anger against a decade of slow growth and austerity caused by the global banking collapse. The bailout of the super-rich in the initial aftermath of the crisis only worked to magnify the distinct reality of gross inequality. The perception of the average person was correct; when the banks failed these institutions received trillions of dollars from the establishment. In the process, this left next to nothing for working people. This class (and others) was then thrown into a condition of government-sponsored austerity, leading to a deep recession.

It is not unimaginable to foresee another stream of Syrian refugees northward in conjunction with a second collapse of the global financial markets. World interest rates are rising after ten years of super cheap money and countless trillions have been spent in junk bond loans. In fact, because of a decade of cheap central bank interest rates, the total amount of world debt is staggering.

However now, as these rates normalize and continue to rise, the horrendous cracks in the foundation of the system are slowly being exposed for all to see. The global commercial banking system has 80 trillion dollars in outstanding debt; much of this is to foreign entities who are having difficulty repaying in dollars. The “shadow banking system” (non-banking financial institutions) have 160 trillion in outstanding debt, and no one knows the complex linkages that these loans represent. Finally, there is the extremely opaque over-the-counter derivatives market which dwarfs the entire world economy SEVEN TIMES OVER, at somewhere near 580 trillion dollars. Given the Trump administration and the new “America First” nationalism, there will be no bailout when the next financial meltdown happens. And with this level of debt, a meltdown will most likely happen.

Is it any wonder that capitalist globalization is being replaced by a desire to return to some kind of nationalist control? The perception that American leadership has been responsible for the failure of globalization is (of course) correct. The US has been the champion of cheap wages through de-industrialization, open-border Mexican labor, and neo-liberal capital flows into nearly every country on earth. There is simply no denial of this reality. This policy failed miserably during the crisis of 2008! And although the world didn’t fall into a 1930s style deep depression, the so-called solution has been more and more of the same reckless debt accumulation — this time through the US Federal Reserve’s zero interest rate policy. In the process, globalization has failed economically, socially, and most importantly for Europe and the US, politically.

Putin has outplayed NATO and its American leadership’s timid hesitancy with a policy of brutal immorality in Syria. But geopolitics has always been immoral — Viet-Nam, Iraq, the constant threat of nuclear annihilation, the expansion of NATO eastward even in the absence of the Cold War. Russia is a land power, with many neighbors and many borders. To be under the shadow of the US and Germany would be beyond the pale for any nation. So once NATO and the EU moved into the countries of the old Warsaw Pact — and then tipped their hand with the coup in the Ukraine — all bets were off, and all strategies were open. Enter the Syrian civil war and Russia’s new play toward a culturally debilitating stream of refugees northward.

Now the final act in Idlib Syria is about to be played out. Russia seemingly holds all the high cards. But the French and German Center-Right governments, along with the quixotic American president (and his new cold warrior foreign policy team) have yet to formulate a mutual diplomatic response. The French have been bellicose. They understand the stakes for Europe of another devastating crush of refugees. The Americans only want to talk about chemical weapons, but they are certain (somehow) that Assad is about to use these weapons. Washington promises a devastating reply to a gas attack, but as yet has failed to articulate a coherent policy toward Syria.

Could there be a superpower showdown in Syria? How would that play out for Israel? How far could the escalation go? Would Lebanon and its Hezbollah rockets be drawn in? Would there be a European nuclear alert? Would Russia threaten the Baltics if challenged in Idlib? The questions are countless. But certain factors are crystal clear: The NATO expansion eastward has been a destabilizing disaster, Russia has used the Syrian crisis to challenge NATO, and that a new security architecture for Europe has become essential.

The best thing that could happen to Syria is the political elimination of Assad, with a Russian tilt toward Israel and the West. This is only achievable with a dramatic break from the past 70 years of NATO policy. Now is the time for serious diplomatic action leading to a new and dramatic Middle East-European understanding involving Russia and the West. The political Center in Europe can’t hold if there is inaction from the West. But the world might not hold if Syria becomes a modern-day Cuban missile crisis. It is time for a new Western foreign policy. It is time for the “mother” of all grand bargains!

About the Author
Steven Horowitz has been a farmer, journalist and teacher spanning the last 45 years. He resides in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, USA. During the 1970's, he lived on kibbutz in Israel, where he worked as a shepherd and construction worker. In 1985, he was the winner of the Christian Science Monitor's Peace 2010 international essay contest. He was a contributing author to the book "How Peace came to the World" (MIT Press).